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As a native English speaker learning German, one thing that has caught my imagination is the Präteritum. The idea of a tense which you mostly don't really say (with a few exceptions such as sein, haben, etc.) but only write is very strange to me. I understand and accept that this is the way it is, but I wonder how did this come to be? Presumably at some point in the past it was used in every day speech as the Perfekt is now. So what changed and why?

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    See also german.stackexchange.com/q/56463/35111.
    – David Vogt
    Sep 18 at 11:28
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    Almost all languages that have a written form have some differences between that and the spoken form. Written language tends to evolve more slowly and be more standardized than spoken language. Plus there's the whole phenomenon of "register", where language changes according to the social situation. So I would say there are similar differences between written and spoken English, but English speakers are used to them.
    – RDBury
    Sep 18 at 18:49
  • Another thing to consider is exactly how true this idea that you only use the preterite in written language actually is. Is a rule, a guideline, or just a trend? The wonderful DWDS usage database gives over 15000 instances of gab in their subtitle corpus, vs. only about 9000 of gegeben. You can argue about how faithfully subtitles reflect natural spoken language, but I think people would complain if the subtitles made it seem like everyone talks like a Wikipedia article.
    – RDBury
    Sep 18 at 19:06
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    There seems to be a similar situation in French where the passé simple is almost exclusively used in written language.
    – RHa
    Sep 19 at 8:48
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    Well, I suppose we could just ask "rooms" ... Is there anything in your question that is not answered by german.stackexchange.com/a/56467/31256?
    – johnl
    Sep 24 at 6:23
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I would say that it has become this way, because you can use Perfekt for both the past and for the future tense and you can also link things that happened in the past to the present (which you cannot do in Präteritum). This makes it much easier to use in the spoken language, as you don't have to think much about the tense.

As in for the written language, I guess it just looks fancier to write everything in Präteritum, as you don't have as many Wortwiederholungen (repetitions of words) with hat, hatte, and so on.

For reference you can read this article: https://www.deutschplus.net/pages/Zeitform_Perfekt

The example they give is the following:

  • Es hat nämlich geregnet. (Perfekt - with a link to the present)
  • Es regnete nämlich. (Präteritum - no link to the present, wrong)
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There is not just one German language and there never was just one German language. German developed from a wide range of similar dialects that were spoken about 1500 years ago in Central Europe, between North Sea and Mediterranean Sea like Langobardic, Bavarian, Allemanic, Franconian, Thuringian, Anglian and Saxonian just to name some of them.

These dialects differed in vocabulary, grammar and in pronunciation. But they were not strictly separated languages, but different version of a continuous range of dialects. People from neighboring villages and kingdoms could easily communicate with each other, but when they traveled a few days (i.e. more than 100 km), they entered regions where it became harder to understand the people there, and when they traveled more than two or three weeks (more than 500 km), they reached regions where it became impossible to understand the people living there.

The dialects spoken by people living up in the mountains (in the Alps) are the group of upper German dialects (Hochdeutsch). The dialects spoken in the flat lands next to North Sea and Baltic Sea were called lower German Dialects (Niederdeutsch). And the dialects spoken between these regions are middle German dialects (Mitteldeutsch).

Over the centuries these dialects influenced each other, so most of them still were parts of a dialect continuum of the same language. This is not true for Anglian and Saxonian which merged to Anglosaxonian and then to Anglish/English when the Angles and Saxons settled the British Islands. This is why today English and German are two different languages. (Although both languages developed from the same germanic dialect cluster.)

But although on the continent the similarities of the dialects still allowed to define them as variations of the same language, they still evolved in different manners.

In upper German dialects the preterite became extinct (with some few exceptions) in 17th century, but it survived in lower and middle German dialects. And this still is the actual situation of dialects now, in 21st century. (I was born 1965 in Graz in the southeast of Austria, and my first language was the local dialect that has no preterite, no genitive case, and where dative and accusative are equal. I learned standard German only in school, like a foreign language.)

Writing was a skill that was available for very long time only for rich upper class people. They sent letters to friends living in regions where other dialects were spoken. So the written form of a language always was more global, more elaborate and more standardized than the spoken language. In all times it was very rare that people used the everyday grammar and vocabulary they used when chatting with family members and neighbors also in their written letters.

And because people also read books that were written decades and centuries before, they were used to older standards, which is why changes in the written language were always slower than in the spoken language. And so the preterite never became extinct in written German, including regions where upper German dialects are spoken.

So, the actual situation is, that there is a notable difference between the grammar of written and spoken German, and this difference is bigger in southern regions than in northern regions.


I wrote at the beginning that there is not just one German, and this still is true. Austria, Switzerland and German use different official standards for German language. These three standard are called standardvariations. And one of the major differences are the tenses for events that happened in the past. These tenses even have different names in official grammar textbooks and in some cases they are even constructed in different ways:

  • Präteritum
    in Germany: unvollendete Vergangenheit, Nachvergangenheit or 1. Vergangenheit
    in Austria: Mitvergangenheit
    Example (both countries)

    Ich lag im Bett. Ich salzte die Suppe.

  • Perfekt
    in Germany: vollendete Gegenwart, Vorgegenwart oder 2. Vergangenheit

    Ich habe im Bett gelegen. Ich habe die Suppe gesalzt.

    in Austria: Vergangenheit

    Ich bin im Bett gelegen. Ich habe die Suppe gesalzen.

Children learn the variation of their country in school. When German children use Austrian German in their texts (and vice versa), this will be treated an an error. These variations are thought in schools and universities, and they are used to write laws and other official documents. So they are standardized variations of German language. (Dialects never are standardized.)

I'm sorry, I have not much knowledge about standard Swiss German, so I can't say much about this standard variation. I just know that the difference between spoken and written German in Switzerland is much bigger than in Austria. 80% of all native German speakers in Switzerland think of the Swizz version of spoken German language and the Swizz version of written German language as of two different languages. But this is another topic and already out of scope of your question.

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I will speculate that the perfect tense dominates in spoken language because it is just simpler to use, requiring only the past participle and the correct form of the auxiliary verb, haben or sein. This tendency is particular pronounced in the dialects. The preterites of haben and sein, by the way, are in constant use as stand-alone verbs too and thus on everyone's tongue, so to speak. Not so all the preterites of, say, the 100-plus "starke Verben."

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    Welcome to German.SE. Questions like this scream a big "there might be actual research available". Like the linked answer offers. So a bit less speculation would help to create an answer as it is recommended for the SE network. Thanks. Oct 19 at 19:03

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